Portland Police Chief Rosie Sizer outlines more training for foot chases

James Chasse

James Chasse

From the Oregonian, December 9. 2008

As a result of James P. Chasse Jr.’s death in custody, Portland Police Chief Rosie Sizer wants to make sure every officer knows when to run after a fleeing suspect, and how to take someone down to reduce injuries.

Sizer, prompted by an internal review of Chasse’s case, has called for expanded training to make sure officers consider the severity of the crime, a suspect’s behavior and immediate environment before running after someone.

In a recently released Nov. 14 memo to her assistant chiefs, Sizer also ordered the production of a roll-call video to highlight the danger of foot pursuits and the bureau’s “knock-down technique.” Chasse died after officers chased him and knocked him to the ground. An autopsy showed he had 26 rib fractures.

The Portland Police Bureau — like police agencies across the nation — is grappling with when and how officers should chase suspects. In July 2006, just two months before Chasse’s death, the bureau adopted its first written directive on foot pursuits, calling them “inherently dangerous,” but training did not immediately follow.

Chasse, a 42-year-old man who suffered from schizophrenia, was chased by officers who said he appeared to be urinating in the Pearl District on Sept. 17, 2006. The officers knocked him to the ground and struggled to handcuff him. Jail staff refused to book Chasse because of his medical condition. He died as officers drove him to a hospital.

An autopsy found he died from broad-based blunt force trauma to his chest early in his encounter with police.

Sizer also has asked her command staff to begin tracking data on foot chases.

“It will give us an opportunity to take a systematic look at when we’re chasing people, in what kind of circumstances and are we making good choices,” said Assistant Chief Lynnae Berg, who is acting chief this week. Sizer is on vacation.

“It’s the same idea of a car chase. If this guy had gotten away, so what?” said Geoff Alpert, who teaches at the University of South Carolina’s College of Criminal Justice. “Officers need to be trained to ask why should they put themselves and other people at risk. If it’s for a serious crime, OK. If it’s for urinating in public? Sure, it’s irritating. It’s stupid. But it’s not worth someone’s life.”

Chasse’s family has a federal civil rights lawsuit pending against the city, chief and mayor. A trial is set for next year.

Tom Steenson, Chasse’s family attorney, said Monday that he hadn’t seen the chief’s memo, which The Oregonian obtained through a public records request. Steenson said the training the chief is pushing appears to emphasize what’s already spelled out in the bureau’s written directive, which was in place when police encountered Chasse.

The bureau’s directive describes foot chases as “inherently dangerous,” and says that the safety of officers and the public “shall be the overriding consideration” in determining whether to start or continue one.

Most police departments across the country have policies that guide officers’ responses when a suspect runs. In 2004, the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department adopted one of the most restrictive policies, prohibiting a deputy from chasing a suspect alone.

More than two years after Chasse’s death, an internal review of the case was presented Oct. 1 and 2 to the Police Bureau’s Use of Force Review Board. The board, made up of commanding officers and citizens, was asked to determine whether the officers acted within bureau policy, whether any discipline was warranted and whether the bureau should make any changes in its training or policies.

The Police Bureau declined to release any of the board’s recommendations regarding discipline in the Chasse case, in response to a records request. Those undisclosed recommendations are on hold, pending the outcome of a renewed inquiry ordered to review whether there were inconsistencies in officers’ statements in light of an enhanced jail video released by Chasse’s attorney in late October.

In the enhanced video, Portland Officer Christopher Humphreys can be heard telling a jailer, “We tackled him” and Chasse landed “hard,” while Humphreys’ partner, then-Multnomah County Deputy Sheriff Bret Burton, can be seen imitating a bear hug with his arms.

Humphreys’ recorded account to jail deputies on how police took Chasse to the ground doesn’t follow police training and differed from what he told investigating detectives three days later. After Chasse’s death, Humphreys told investigators that he shoved Chasse down with both his forearms against Chasse’s back, the knock-down technique officers are trained to do. Humphreys also told detectives he fell onto the sidewalk, past Chasse, according to police transcripts.

The Police Bureau trains officers to match the speed of the suspect running away, and then apply pressure to the person’s back to push him to the ground, and not tackle him. “The idea is that the suspect goes down, and the officer stays in a superior position, and you don’t end up in a tangled mess,” Berg said.

If an officer falls to the ground with a suspect, the officer is at a tactical disadvantage because the suspect can reach an officer’s firearm, said Sgt. Brian Schmautz, police spokesman.

Sgt. Scott Westerman, president of the Portland Police Association, who was injured during a foot chase himself in December 2006, called the enhanced training beneficial. “But I’m disappointed that the chief’s office has chosen to come out with recommendations for training, without also coming out with the use of force review board’s recommendation as to the status of the three officers involved.”